Classic Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler (Kindle Version)

Posted: August 31, 2018 in Books

Kindred

Dana Franklin is a young African American woman married to a white man, named Kevin in 1976.  Both are writers, doing research on their latest book.  The two met and started dating while looking for work.  Both families objected, but they got married anyway.  One day without warning, Dana feels dizzy, and before she knows what’s happening, she wakes up in a strange place far from her home.  Dana sees a child drowning, and instinctively saves the child, but no one seems to be grateful.  The boy’s name is Rufus, and his mother accuses Dana of trying to drown Rufus, someone points a gun at Dana and, she gets dizzy, and without knowing what happened, she wakes up back home.

Dana is back in the strange place before long, saving the boy Rufus from a barn fire, by this time Dana deduces that she has been brought back to the year 1809, she is living on a plantation in Maryland, owned by Rufus’ father, Tom and it is the boy Rufus that brings her here, this time a man tries to rape Dana and she gets dizzy and goes back home.

On subsequent trips back to the 1800’s, she takes Kevin along, who pretends to be her owner  and finds out that Rufus, now in his twenties, is in love with Dana’s ancestor, a slave named Alice, but Alice is married to a slave named Isaac, who has beaten Rufus to a pulp for trying to rape Alice.  Isaac tries to run away with Alice, knowing that if they stay they will face severe consequences. Dana has problems of her own, during her time travels back and forth, she and Kevin were separated, and while they are still in the same time period, Kevin has left Maryland, and Dana doesn’t know where he is.  Do Isaac and Alice escape?   What’s the strange power that Rufus have that can summon Dana to him at any time?  There seems to be a bond between Dana and Rufus, what is it?  Does Dana ever find Kevin?  Do they ever get to stay in 1976 Maryland for good?

Octavia Butler is a African American science fiction novelist , I found out about her from a Google doodle, and looked further into her writings.  Kindred combines two of my favorite things, history and science fiction.  There are all kinds of interesting sociological messages in this book.  Dana and Kevin are an interracial couple, a rarity in the 70’s and there’s a great deal of discomfort with the idea in the 70’s, but it’s interesting how Butler explains the relationship in the 1800’s as a slave/slave owner relationship.  Butler should have delved a little deeper into their relationship in the 70’s, there seems to be a strain in the relationship that goes beyond time travel, but a lot of the stress is unspoken, so the reader never gets a clear idea of what the strain is.

The science fiction is never clearly explained either,  only that Rufus has this power and he uses it often.  But Dana knows to tread lightly in the 1800’s or change history in the present.  Science fiction readers know all about the time space continuum from the days of HG Wells’ Time Machine, and Butler seems to stick to the rules that were first established by Wells.

What is revolutionary in this book is the superimposing of science fiction and historical fiction.  Imagine what would happen if a contemporary black woman traveled back to the 1800’s to live in a time where slavery existed?  Readers need not wonder about that hypothetical any longer because Butler gives readers a view of what that might have looked like.  There are all kinds of themes explored here, Dana is a strong black woman, that poses enough issues in current day society, it poses more issues in the 1800’s.  She is resented by men and women of either color for being so outspoken. The slave/slave owner relationship is explored, the power dynamics of both slave and owner, and men and women in a largely male dominated society is examined.   The power relationship is an interesting discussion to have, especially in light of the me-too movement.

The role of education in slavery is explored, slaves wanted an education, but resent Dana for “sounding white”  and having an education, and the slave owners resented anyone with an education.  So Rufus also resents Dana for being more educated than he is. Butler doesn’t soft-peddle slavery in any way, Dana suffers a lot for being black in the 1800’s, she is beaten, whipped, constantly threatened with rape if she steps out of line.  It’s a horror show.  But the reality of it is gripping, and doesn’t let go, until the roller coaster ride finally ends.  Some writers set up dangerous situations for their characters and find ways for them to wiggle out of them, not Butler.  Every decision Dana makes is fraught with peril.

There are flaws in the book, Rufus seems overly accepting of what brought Dana to him, and her explanation of her time period, a plantation owner, especially an uneducated owner, would be highly dubious of Dana’s story, and he is too nice to Dana at first, it wasn’t believable that Rufus would treat Dana so well in the beginning.  It’s interesting to see the character arcs of both Dana and Rufus as the book goes on.  The ending seemed rushed and overly dramatic, but overall, the book is enthralling and a real page turner, and worth reading for the serious issues it covers in a serious way.

Kindred:  Don’t dread reading this book, it’s entertaining and informative.

 

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